Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Empty House Revisited


This afternoon I met my mother at the farmhouse to go over what had been moved, what was left, what is still to go. With amazing efficiency, thanks to other members of her family, most everything was moved during one sultry weekend. We discussed the future of the place and the reality of what it requires--I said I didn't think we could keep it. I told her we wanted to keep as much of the land as possible surrounding the house but that we would sell the house and about 10 acres. She described some murmur in the family about keeping it in the family--certainly our original intention, but is this, too, a pipe dream?--so I thought I would follow up and send out an e-mail and/or letter to all aunts, uncle and cousins. At the very least, I owe them an explanation for why we are selling it and an opportunity to buy if anyone desires.

Seeing it again made it easier and visiting my mother's new house, a mile up the road, and seeing how she had settled everything into her new life also made things easier. She has blended her own things--some in storage for 30+ years--with some family pieces that she has brought from the farm. I was glad to see that she had chosen many objects that meant something to her. In the corner of her garage the four or five North American Van Line boxes from the June 1974 move are still unopened. Each one is now truly a time capsule of another life.

She showed me all through her house, very cozy and just the right size for two, and we both enthused about the amount of storage, the "just right size-ness" of everything--like the Three Bears cottage--and how a home is really made of the people in it. She said, "I'm realizing that, too." But the transition will not be easy--I think she is still somewhat wistful for what she has left behind. But she can walk on the property with the dogs always, even if the farmhouse sells. This is a huge change for her but in the long run, it will be easier--no huge maintenance bills to face, no acres of lawn to mow, no longer a slave to her gardens but with a few around to putter in.

As I pulled out of the driveway, I looked back in the rear view mirror and waved. My mother had a longing look about her, as if I were driving off to Oklahoma in a covered wagon, never to return. I promised to bring the boys the next time we meet--when we will likely have a book dealer come to go over the remaining lots. That will be in mid-August, soon towards the odd-uneven time of late summer. It has been a good summer and at the same time it has been very odd and uneven. The last year or so has been this way and I'm looking forward to a settling in time for all of us. I didn't cry today or the other day as I thought I might--I realized I have probably spent much of the past year crying about the farm. That sadness has been replaced by a steady clearheadedness--a compartmentalized sense of nostalgia and the reality that we gave it our best shot to bring everything at the farm--and everyone--together. I realize it is no longer my job nor should it ever have been.

So I'm starting to tuck the place away in acid-free memory. I realize that I have been doing that slowly, in manageable increments, since I formally moved out of the farm with my three year old daughter in late 1991. During the past four years I have mixed distance with wanting to buy the place and live there again one day. I realize, ultimately, that Thomas Wolfe was right--you can't go home again. It is never the same. I have seen these empty rooms, these corridors and walls of memory, but still I see them filled with objects and furnishings and people--even the many dogs we've had over the years at the farm. Forever attached to the farm will be "the bits and threads" of many lives, to paraphrase Katherine Mansfield--they whisper in the fields and from the open spaces in the barn and in the pinewoods. They cling behind doorways of the farmhouse. They will forever wave there from another time, silently, invisibly, but always there--the traces of four generations of one American family.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Another Empty House


Vermont farmer Theron Boyd became a folk hero for standing against Goliath. He inherited his grandmother's farm and held out against the Quechee development group in the 1980s in Quechee, Vermont. They wanted to buy his 1786 farm with its significant acreage--they were buying up properties all over the region for their extensive golf course, condo and country club resort. They offered him $1 million. He said, no this is my home and where am I going to go? Then they gave him a blank check. He still said no. Through many orchestrations, his family house was preserved with 30 acres of the original 500 and eventually turned over to the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation who intend to operate the house as a study property with minimal traffic.


Judy Hayward of Historic Windsor, Inc., whom I know from National Trust days way back in the 1980s, and John Dumville of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation led a tour there tonight. I've been looking forward to this for several months after hearing about the house years ago. This house is entirely empty and a blank canvas for interpretation. While some things were left with it, most items were auctioned off or purchased by the Vermont Division and put into their climate-controlled collections. The amazing thing about the Theron Boyd house is that most of it is as it was in 1786 with a few later, but minor, changes. Through benign neglect and a bit of architectural layering, the house is more or less its original self--ripped wallpaper, crumbling plaster, curling clapboards and all. Right now the Vermont Division requires significant funding to do some sensitive preservation work and stabilization--there is no intention of restoration to one period but to preserve the many layers of architectural and house history that the home conveys. There will never be attempts at reproducing the house contents for it is the shell of the untouched house that is most intriguing, that has the best story to tell.


Of course there is a pantry and what a pantry: while not full of canned goods the architectural treatment is of interest (and how many chances will I ever have to see an original pantry dating to 1786?). Long shelves have mysterious notches in them--another woman commented on those and mentioned they were also in the pantry in her early 1800s house--and a whimsical almost Gothic-like scalloped trim carved along the edges. Empty metal maple syrup cans line the bottom of the pantry and a few old food cans and jars are still there. While most everything was removed from the house, there are some vestiges of life that remain (like Theron's coat which hangs in the ell off the summer kitchen and his dentures left on a plate above the kitchen sink, to name a few things) and these items only fuel the interest in what the house was like when occupied. They are just enough to know that someone once lived here.

I am probably going to be writing an article about this house for OLD-HOUSE INTERIORS in their special EARLY HOMES issue (and the pantry will be going in my book so I can't spoil both now by writing too much or posting too many photographs). Like Drayton Hall near Charleston, this house is about the remaining palate of empty rooms and spaces. It is not so much about the people or their absent furnishings, but about the architectural picture and the mysteries or answers it presents. The house also was never electrified, plumbed or heated, except by fireplace and stove--a two-holer with its old blue door remains off the shed and one sink was eventually installed in the kitchen.

I was also struck by the many similarities to our Jaffrey farmhouse. For example, the front stairhall, while common in most center chimney Georgians (they call this a Federal and apart from the hipped roof, I see very little Federal in it--I must ask about that), had identically carved banister posts as at our farm (built in 1792). I always loved that stair landing at the farm and I enjoyed it at the Theron Boyd house, too (see photo under blog heading). In fact, for a brief moment I thought I was at the farm.

Tomorrow I will be going to meet my mother at the farm to go over issues of closure--logistic and otherwise. The phone, with its number held for over 60 years, will be turned off on August 1. Mom is already sleeping and living at her new house--I will go in that, too, for the first time. I am eager but ambivalent. I am expecting the surreal--like matter and antimatter world colliding for a brief moment in space.

A violent storm came through Vermont and New Hampshire this afternoon on our drive up to see the Theron Boyd house. We drove back home near dusk to see the most brilliant colors in the sky--pinks and grays and browns and blue sky beyond. A long cold front--from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico--has barreled through and tomorrow will be cooler, less humid, with clearer air.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Empty House


EMILY: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama! Wally's dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it - don't you remember? But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's really look at one another!...I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -- up the hill -- to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
EMILY: I'm ready to go back.
[From the play OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder]

The first time I suppose I ever saw a house emptied was when we moved from 2024 Ayres Avenue in Akron, Ohio in June 1974 and left for my grandparents' farm in Jaffrey. It is odd but I don't remember walking through those rooms and seeing them void of any life. I just remember the large North American moving van, the bustle of boxes, and my dear Grandpa Sei coming over to see us off before we set off in our green Plymouth station wagon for the long voyage east [see blog posted on May 14, 2005 "Everything Old is New Again"].

My memories of that house, which return mostly in dreams, are like those of all the houses I have known well in my life. They are full of furniture and family items, floor layouts and architectural detail, special nooks, and people. Most importantly, these places are infused with "people memory" and I can always return to them in my mind. I am fortunate to be able to recall many events and places with an eerie photographic and sometimes auditory perception. Like Emily in the play OUR TOWN, who chooses to relive her 12th birthday when she is allowed to revisit Earth, I can go back in my memories, too--but I tend to dwell too often in the past. It is a family affliction, I'm afraid, at least on one side of my family--or maybe it is just a nostalgic bent fused with a love of history and the past. Regardless, it can be a crippling thing and I struggle always to be more in the present.

Today my son Henry and I stopped by my grandparents' farmhouse that my mother has been moving out of for several months. The grass had just been freshly mowed, the large whiskey barrels of nasturtiums that my mother and I planted in early June--a last rite it now seems--were spilling over with their bright and colorful abundance. Apart from no cars in the drive, the place still looked inhabited. We decided to check. Henry came back and said, "It's empty! The house is empty!" We found the key and walked in, feeling like trespassers, even though we now own the place (for some time I have felt like a trespasser in the home where I grew up). Each room was in a different state: most were clean and empty, some had a few remnants of furniture in them left for us, the old "Toy Room" had boxes of books to be looked at by a dealer. The most intact room of all was Addie's old room, once mine before her and my mother's before that. The bed is still made, as if waiting for her visit to "Bamma's" and my doll collection still stares out at the world from inside the old glass display cabinet.


Almost everything is gone or has been dispersed: the six Grummon family portraits that had been together for over sixty years, various layers of family things from five or more generations (most never before divided until now, even twenty years after my grandmother's death), the things and chaff of almost sixty years in one residence. Of course there has been much fluidity and change over that time but the core things--like the Rabbit Hole bathroom, the Toy Room wallpaper and rows of books, the location of family portraits, the placement of my grandmother's rocking chair in her old room, these things were the same.

Until a few years ago when one of my brother's carpeted the back stairs, you could walk up them and still smell that warm wood smell so common in old houses. But this one was unique to the farm--every summer upon arrival I would notice it and say, "there is that smell again!" A happy, warm, welcoming smell.

SMOKING IS NOT ALLOWED by Catherine Seiberling Pond

Several weeks ago I was standing in the barn with my daughter Addie (who spent her first three years of life at the farm). She said "I think I'm going to miss the barn swallows most--their comings and goings and return each year." "Me too," I said, in awe of a rare moment of teenage sensitivity from my daughter. Before we locked up today Henry said "I'm going to miss this place." He was wistful and somewhat poignant for a boy all of seven and a half years. "Me too, Henry," I said. I was glad they were both with me on my past few visits.

No matter what comes next for the farm--and we have some heavy decisions to make based on cost estimates for very basic work--it will never be the same. It is as if the vacuum left by a passing tornado has sucked the life out of the place along with its contents. I'm not sure that I could ever replace the life and energy and soul in it if I tried. Perhaps it is indeed time that we all just let go and move on and let another family have a try.

We gave it almost sixty years of four generations of family living under its roof. My mother said once "this house has many ghosts"--not of the dead necessarily but from different phases of her life--some are good, some are bad, I expect, but nevertheless they are always around a place of memory. She gave the farm thirty-one years of her adult life, including two marriages (after her divorce with my father in 1974) and ten years of endless devotion and inherhent difficulties with a mother afflicted with Alzheimer's. Before that my grandparents struggled to live a life off the land and in a small community after growing up in privileged suburban backgrounds. Growing crops and raising six children on a small New Hampshire farm was not always an easy proposition. But they seemed to manage and were always a team.

By the summer of 1974 we had moved back from Akron and almost immediately my grandfather died, too young it seems at the age of 63, from heart complications. Soonafter Grandmother seemed different--at first we thought it was depression but there was also forgetfulness and anger. We stayed on the place instead of finding our own spot. It seemed the right thing to do for everyone. Now I think my mother deserves a place to call her own--easy to maintain, no ghosts. She has a little house right up the road about a mile and just down the hill from where her parents and two of her siblings are buried (at the Cathedral of the Pines). I hope she will be happy there.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Back to Ohio

"Hey, ho, way to go, Ohio." Chrissie Hynde, THE PRETENDERS (Yep, Chrissie grew up just a few streets away from me on Sand Run Road--she was a bit older and more hip than I and had fled for London by the time we moved to New Hampshire.)

It is hard to describe this feeling, coming back to terra madre, driving past the old house, seeing the fireflies on the dewy suburban lawns, watching a perfectly coiffed suburban Barbie doll (with bobbed blonde hair) rounding the corner behind her terrier, way too thin and way too tall and way too perfect, following after her naturally blonde bobbed daughter whom I first noticed playing in their manicured yard. I couldn't figure out if this woman was wearing Lily Pulitzer or the latest Talbots but I realized right there that I could never "go back" to home, to Ohio, in the sense of my childhood. The hardest part of this brief 60 hour visit (we leave Friday morning)--and there are many good parts, too--is knowing I can no longer drive down Mull Avenue to see my father or meet him nearby at his favorite restaurant. I can no longer drive down Melbourne and visit with the Tompkins, my second family during childhood and beyond. My father died in October 2002, just a few days before my 40th birthday. I was here with him, as were my brothers, and again the following October for a special memorial recital in his honor to dedicate a musical endowment we created in his name. I haven't been here since. (I haven't seen the Tompkins either since they moved to South Carolina in 1999.)

In many ways this is a city of ghosts. Memories drift in and out of streets and houses and other places I recall. Family houses remain, including one that is a museum (and that I can't wait to visit tomorrow to see their pantries again--more on that, well, after tomorrow), but the family is gone. I have an aunt, my father's sister, but she only wants to visit by phone and I only want to run into her house and embrace her and say "you see, Aunt Mary, you are family and you are in a house that I remember and I love that you are still here" but I can't. Even she can not go back and it was in her childhood and young marriage that Akron was in its hey-dey.

Downtown Akron is coming back in some ways--a new minor league baseball stadium, some fabulous restaurants here and there and in the suburbs, too. Of course, I say suburbs but you can drive from the well-kept green lawns and secure houses of Fairlawn Heights, east to downtown on Market Street, past increasingly more depressed neighborhoods, into downtown Akron in a matter of ten minutes in good traffic.

So to feel somewhat close to my roots again, I can always go to Stan Hywet Hall, a vast Tudor mansion complete with furnishings and family items intact that my greatgrandparents built in 1916. In 1957 the house was turned over to a foundation by their six children, one of whom was my grandfather (my grandparents house was down the road--it was sold in 1983 after my Grandpa died--another place of great memory). So they handed over the house lock, stock and barrel because they didn't want to have to tear it down or distribute its contents among the family. Even though I never lived in this house, it holds family memories and photographs, and my own memories from visits, reunions and internships in the past. It also instilled a lifelong appreciation of everything English and old and a love of historic architecture. Even the Gate Lodge, where my great-aunt Irene had life tenancy until her death at 108 (she nearly lived in parts of three centuries, born in 1890 and died in 1999, a month shy of her 109th birthday), is now a historical site of national importance: it is the place where my great-aunt Henrietta introduced Dr. Bob and Dr. Bill together and thus Alcoholics Anonymous began.

Tomorrow I will revisit Stan Hywet's pantries and learn more about the "behind stairs" domestic life. I will read letters and notes from my greatgrandmother to her servants and I will think that yes, here I am nearly one hundred years later, a child of divorced parents (one deceased and one married for the third time), three children of my own, a husband, and a strange kind of domestic insanity.

I think of the old days--my childhood and those years before that are really sepia-toned impressions of another life--and I become nostalgic for something that probably never was. So I must learn to enjoy the here and now, whether I'm in Akron in 2005 as a 42 year old middle-aged premenopausal woman or as a 10 year old who has no clue about what is to come or what has been.

"Oh Earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you!" cries the young Emily Webb who returns to life to relive her 12th birthday in the Thornton Wilder play, OUR TOWN. "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? --
every, every minute?"

"No," answers the omniscient Stage Manager who then pauses. "The saints and poets, maybe they do some."

Emily answers, "I'm ready to go back."

But I ask, to where, to what? Right now at this very minute my mother is finishing the last packing up of the farmhouse in Jaffrey, the other place I have always thought of as home. She is moving up the road a ways into a newer house and we bought the farm with hopes of moving there ourselves one day. But our lives have evolved in the past several years and we just got an estimate that it will take around $250,000 just to stabilize the house, put on a new roof, new septic, new electrical (or we can't get insurance nor rent to tenants, which had been the plan for two years), new heating system, and carpenters to patch things up after the electrical work. So it is all in limbo now--our plans, which house, what place.

I am not a gypsy and need a nest I can count on. "Our forever house," to quote the wisdom of a nine year old boy, a friend of my son, and son of my friend, who wanted his dead pet mouse dug up and brought to his new and seemingly permanent home. That is just what I need right now--a forever house.